Each year, the Religious Studies Department at Mercyhurst University awards an individual or organization the Archbishop Oscar Romero Award for “living the call of faith and justice in an extraordinary manner.”
This year marks the 30th year for the award named in honor of now Saint Oscar Romero, a staunch advocate for the poor and oppressed in El Salvador. Saint Oscar Romero gave his life fighting for the dignity and human rights of those who were excluded from society and marginalized for centuries.
Barber National Institute was nominated this year for the Archbishop Oscar Romero Award, and I was honored to accept this award on behalf of the organization Dr. Gertrude Barber founded 70 years ago. On the evening of March 24, I gave a speech on the campus of Mercyhurst University titled “Continuing the Legacy of Making Dreams Come True.”
Like Saint Oscar Romero, Dr. Gertrude Barber was called to help those who had been excluded from society and given little opportunity to grow and thrive as valued members in their own communities.
Dr. Gertrude Barber entered the Erie School District as a young teacher in the 1930s. Her first assignment was working with children with mild disabilities at Wayne School. While these children were deemed to be educable by the school system, there were many students with disabilities who were denied access to a quality education. Their only option was to either be sent to an institution or kept at home indefinitely.
With limited funding and legal restrictions in offering early intervention programs to aid children with disabilities, Dr. Barber organized the first parent group in 1950. If the city and state would not provide for these children, then the parents must start a school of their own.
The first class for children with disabilities was held at the YWCA in April of 1952. As the Y become too small for Dr. Gertrude’s programs, a permanent home was found in 1958 at the Lakeview Hospital at 136 East Avenue.
Institutional reforms began in the 1960s, and Dr. Gertrude played a major role in providing her expertise on the challenges that face people with disabilities and their families. By the early 1970s, there was a push to move people with disabilities out of institutions and back to their home communities. Today, the Barber National Institute operates 95 group homes throughout Erie, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh, where adults with disabilities are supported as they live, work, and worship in their own communities and neighborhoods.
In 2000, Dr. Barber passed away, but her work continues. Today the organization she founded serves 6,300 children, adults, and families across Pennsylvania.
Throughout our history, we have been committed to the concept of social justice in the equitable treatment of people with disabilities. Our progress toward this ideal was slow initially and was not without its unique challenges, but today the Barber National Institute serves as a beacon for those who are committed to improving the lives of people with disabilities.
If you would like a copy of the PowerPoint presentation from the Archbishop Oscar Romero Award reception, please email Grace Martin at GraceMartin@barberni.org or call 814-878-5903.